Reichman said that it is especially critical in highly charged moments, such as the war between Israel and Hamas, that campuses be places of open and even difficult debate. “It isn’t for the head of state of another country to tell presidents how to do that.”

Herzog letter

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Alex Morey, director of campus-rights advocacy for the free-speech group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, said colleges “can and should address true threats or other misconduct targeting their Jewish students. The squishy issue here is the temptation to punish protected speech that people subjectively feel is ‘threatening’ or very upsetting but is not technically unlawful” under First Amendment protections.

Colleges, she said, “should not bow to pressure to suppress protected speech.” She noted that while Herzog’s letter was “definitely unusual,” college leaders have increasingly come under pressure from politicians, donors, and interest groups about how to respond to the Israel-Hamas war and other sensitive topics.

In fact, there are other examples, before the current conflict, of the Israeli government trying to influence American colleges, sometimes in heavy-handed ways, such as calling for the cancellation of a course or to strike a book from a syllabus.

In 2021, Israeli consular officials pressed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remove a graduate student from teaching a course, “The Conflict Over Israel/Palestine,” because of what they said were her antisemitic views. They also reportedly enlisted a local U.S. congresswoman to meet with college officials. The graduate student, Kylie Broderick, had posted critiques of Israeli policy online and expressed support for the academic boycott of Israel.

Earlier this year, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism, Amichai Chikli, wrote to the president of Princeton University, Christopher L. Eisgruber, to demand the removal of a book he called “antisemitic propaganda” from the syllabus of an upcoming seminar. He also said Princeton should “conduct a thorough review of the academic materials” used in its courses.

And a major donor resigned from the Board of Trustees at Bard College after college leaders refused to cancel a course on “Apartheid in Israel-Palestine.” Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, said he had been contacted by an Israeli diplomat to protest the course, but he told The Guardian, “We stood up for academic freedom.”

It’s certainly extraordinarily unusual, if not unprecedented. And it’s also inappropriate.

Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton who has written about the case at his own university, said colleges’ more-extensive international academic and research ties could make them more susceptible to pressures from foreign governments. “These global networks bring great benefits to American universities, but it could also put pressure on them to knuckle under,” Whittington said. “It’s no small thing to get a letter from a government minister in another country.”

Still, Whittington, who serves on the Academic Freedom Alliance’s Academic Committee, said he had greater concerns about demands from domestic politicians or donors who often exercise greater influence.

A spokesman for Herzog, who attended Cornell and New York Universities, said the president’s letter was not meant to interfere in internal college decision making or to silence debate on campuses. It was written, he said, out of “real concern for the well-being of Jewish students.”

“This really isn’t a letter of politics or about foreign involvement on campuses,” the spokesman said. “It’s a matter of morality and the sanctity of academia.”

He said that the letter was sent to an “extensive” list of college presidents and other senior administrators.

Colleges contacted by The Chronicle declined to comment on the Herzog letter; several shared statements by campus leaders condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, the president of an Israeli university has been making an “emergency visit” to American campuses to talk with administrators, faculty members, and student groups about what he sees as a “failed” response by many American higher-education institutions to the war in Israel and Palestine.

Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa, has spent much of his academic career in the United States. Over the past week, he visited campuses including Harvard, NYU, and the University of California at San Diego, but he declined to discuss details of his meetings and said his trip had in no way been coordinated with the Israeli government.

Robin is among a group of presidents of Israeli research universities who have written a pair of letters to college leaders worldwide to more forcefully condemn Hamas. He said he felt compelled to take action in response to “toxic, poisonous hate speech” on American campuses.

“I’m not here to tell people how terrible they are,” Robin said. “I want to help them think this through.”